piatok, 19 júla, 2024


Foreign languages thrill me to the roots of my being

Interview with prof. David Crystal – a famous linguist.

Listen to him or read his answers below.

1. When and where did you start to learn your first foreign language? What language was it? 

I began to learn Welsh as a second language during my pre-school years in Holyhead in North Wales, but my first real foreign language was French, encountered when I was 11, in secondary school.

2. Why did you start learning the foreign language? Was it compulsory, or did you have any other motivation?

It was part of the school curriculum, so there was no choice in the matter. It was closely followed by Latin at 12 and Classical Greek at 13. This last was an interesting situation: if you were in the top stream at school, you had to learn Greek; if you were in the second stream, you had to learn German!

3. What was the most difficult for you to learn? What is the best way according to you to learn a language?

I don’t recall ever having real difficulty in learning a language. The critical factors are strong and genuine motivation, and plenty of opportunity to experience the language in authentic settings (whether listening, speaking, reading, or writing).

4. Did you like learning a foreign language? Why yes? Why not?

Foreign languages thrill me to the roots of my being. They convey fresh visions of what it means to be human, and they permit a close encounter with enticing cultures. They also make it a whole lot easier to get around! As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said,

‘No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits.

Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.’

5. What languages can you speak?

Difficult to answer, as it all depends on what is meant by ‘speak’, and how well. My best language is French. Over the years I’ve been able to carry on a reasonable conversation at a domestic level in Spanish, Portuguese, and German, and could do so again given (see above) the motivation and opportunity to bring them up to speed. Thanks to my career as a linguist, I have a reading knowledge of a few others, and a working knowledge of a dozen or so other languages – but without much vocabulary (which is always the mountain to be climbed, when it comes to foreign language learning).

6. When did you start having a feeling that you are able to speak a foreign language fluently?

I don’t think I’ve ever had that feeling, if fluency is to be judged by the standards of my ability in English. Although I’ve felt reasonably fluent in domestic conversation in some languages, I know I would not be comfortable in, say, giving a radio interview or a lecture in the language. I’ve tried it, from time to time, and the results were not good! I’ve never had the opportunity to develop a confident stylistic range in any language other than English.

7. Is there any language you would like to learn? Why?

All of them. All 6000+. And especially the ones that are close to extinction.

8. Which language is according to you: the easiest, the most difficult and the most beautiful?

An impossible question to answer. Ease and difficulty depend on where you start from – what language background you have.

And beauty is in the eyes and ears of a person’s first languages.

From a child language acquisition point of view, all spoken languages are equal, as the evidence suggests that all children pass through the same stages and time periods as they acquire their mother-tongues.

9. When and why did you decide to become a professional linguist? Have you experienced any funny / terrible story thanks to languages?

I answer these questions in full in my autobiographical memoir, Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language (Routledge, 2009). The book is full of stories. Linguists tend to travel a lot, and find themselves in all kinds of unusual situations, sometimes funny, sometimes serious. If you want language storiies, read my book – though I’m quite sure any linguist could tell similar stories.


About David Crystal

He lectured at Bangor University and the University of Reading, a honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor.

His academic interests include: 

  • English language learning and teaching;
  • clinical linguistics
  • forensic linguistics
  • language death
  • “ludic linguistics” (Crystal’s neologism for the study of language play)
  • English style
  • Shakespeare
  • indexing and lexicography

Prof. Crystal is the author, co-author, or editor of over 100 books on a wide variety of subjects.

Note: This interview was done in 2011.